News & Opinion

Women applaud Augusta but fret ‘logistics’

This might represent the double-edged sword of success, defined.

Talent-laden UCLA is the No. 1 team in Golfstat’s NCAA Division I women’s rankings and is well-positioned to make a run at the title this year. So, when coach Carrie Forsyth’s phone blew up early Wednesday morning as the coaching grapevine learned that Augusta National had unexpectedly announced a new event for top female amateurs, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, her initial reaction was somewhat mixed.

“As a college coach, I’m excited about the opportunity for some of our players to play at Augusta National,” Forsyth said. “But obviously, the timing is not ideal, coming right in the championship segment of our season.”

The majority of Augusta’s new three-day, 72-player field will be composed of players from the World Amateur Golf Ranking, which is loaded with collegians. It didn’t take long for Forsyth to count how many of her players are among the WAGR’s top 50.

“That would be four,” she said, pausing before delivering the punchline, “of our starting five.”

For the top colleges, it creates potential benefits with regard to publicity, but at least as many scheduling headaches, because programs received all of 51 weeks of notice. And there’s the rub. UCLA and crosstown rival USC, with a combined five national titles since 2003, already have committed to play in college events preceding and following Augusta’s tournament week.

Make no mistake, the Augusta event, which club officials said is expected to be televised, was universally heralded as hugely beneficial to the women’s amateur game. But the details for collegians could take some finessing over the short term.

“This is a positive for women’s golf, promoting the women’s game and recognizing that women have earned the opportunity because they’ve elevate their games,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said.

Some elite programs likely will send multiple players. The better the program, the more players who could be missing during Augusta’s tournament week, which likely would include multiple practice rounds on the two tournament venues that host the event. Few college teams carry enough players on the roster to make up for the loss of as many players as the top programs might face next April.

Gaston, who has won three NCAA titles at USC, used the word “logistics” a half-dozen times in a first-blush reaction to the news shortly after she arrived on campus Wednesday morning. Potentially complicating things is that a handful of top college amateurs were given exemptions into the ANA Inspiration, the first women’s professional major of the year, staged last week in Rancho Mirage, Calif., too. It’s a congested part of the season, with events, regionals and finals looming for top collegians.

“It’s an interesting thing, the timing of it,” Gaston said. “There were [college] players in the ANA last week, and now there’s this new Augusta event. But obviously, it’s a huge honor for the top 72 players to be invited.

“For us, how do you work the logistics of it?”

Forsyth said that college coaches were caught off-guard by the announcement. Who wasn’t? After repeatedly insisting that Augusta National had no intention of sponsoring a women’s event, including as recently as 2015 Masters week, the club reversed its position Wednesday morning when first-year chairman Fred Ridley announced the formation of the 54-hole event. The final 18 holes will be contested at Augusta National next April 6, the Saturday before 2019 Masters week begins for the male professionals.

“How do you not play Augusta National, in what might be your only chance, especially when it’s in tournament shape, right before the Masters?” said Gaston, her excitement obvious.

She was hardly alone. Within minutes of the announcement, six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus tweeted: “Fantastic. This is a great thing for the game of golf.”

True, though it complicates things for certain college programs. For those already committed to playing next April, competing in a tournament with second-string players can be impactful, too. Middling tournament finishes can result in teams being sent to NCAA regionals at less-convenient locales, Forsyth pointed out. 

The conference championship in the Pac-12, whose teams have collected the past three NCAA women’s titles and seven of the past 10, is annually held in late April. Academics also could factor into the equation for some players, because finals at some campuses are growing near and players miss enough school while playing in college events already, coaches said.

At the moment, Forsyth’s Bruins have four players – all juniors or younger – ranked in the WAGR top 50, including junior standout Lilia Vu, the current amateur world No. 1. The more elite the program, the bigger the potential absenteeism. It’s also potentially great exposure for the program.

Players in the event will not be representing their schools, per se, so they’ll need to pay their own way to Georgia, which represents a possible concern for overseas competitors. But those are solvable, first-year issues, most likely.

Good headaches to face, really, and similar to the issue standing before the LPGA, which Golf Channel said is studying whether to move the 2019 ANA event that would, as it stands, overlap the Augusta Women’s Amateur.

“While this announcement may create some initial challenges for our first major, navigating multiple opportunities for women’s golf is a good problem to have,” the LPGA said in a statementWednesday. “We will work together with our partner ANA, the Masters and the media to ensure that the deserved winners in this will be the women (both professional and amateur) and the game of golf overall.”

Think: Big picture.

“This is another opportunity for these girls to dream,” said LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, a former Pacific 12 star at Arizona. “Little girls have dreams, too, and this is great news.”

In the overall scheme, there was little question that the Division I coaching fraternity was pleased that the ANGC green jackets have boosted women’s golf across all levels.

“Absolutely, no question, no argument,” Gaston said. “It’s a very big deal to be given an opportunity like this. Now we just have to figure out how to make it work.”

Steve Elling has first reported from the Masters in 2001, and has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling